History Comes to Life in Charlestown
Connect with the past in this Sullivan County town
For a town of just over 5,000 people, Charlestown has a tremendous wealth of distinguished old homes and buildings. Sixty-two structures and monuments lining its Main Street (Route 12) are significant enough to be listed in the Charlestown Main Street Historic District register.
Charlestown’s location on the Connecticut River had a lot to do with the burg’s prominence in the 18th and 19th centuries, when most of these historic structures were built. The river was an important highway for goods and people, and the rich soil along its banks was some of New England’s most productive farmland. It was the promise of good soil and forests teeming with game that drove pioneers westward from the first coastal villages.
In the 1740s, during the French and Indian Wars, Charlestown was the Connecticut Valley’s outpost of British settlement, the northernmost of a line of forts that protected the frontier. This in turn made Charlestown an important center for trade and transport as more settlements grew to the north and west.
The town’s importance and influence extended into the early- and mid-1800s, when its many prosperous residents built homes to reflect their status and wealth. A walk down the tree-lined Main Street shows some fine examples of the period’s architectural styles, the work of master builders and prominent architects.
A fire in 1842 destroyed part of downtown, spurring a flurry of new construction. This, and the presence in town of master builder Stephen Hassam, brought the then-fashionable styles of Federal, Greek Revival and Gothic Revival, all of which are represented in the historic district. Hassam is responsible for the fine architectural details on many of the large homes.
Historic signs and markers relate some of Charlestown’s story, including one on the northern end of Main Street noting a house from which an entire family was captured by the Abenaki and taken to Canada in 1754. By that time, the settlement had about 180 people and had outgrown its ¾-acre stockade.
At the corner of Lower Landing Road on the south end of Main Street, a boulder with a bronze plaque marks the site of the stockade of Fort No. 4, the first settlement here, built in 1744. The fort was besieged in 1747 by French and Indians, but successfully defended by the garrison’s 31 men in a three-day battle. The fort played its role in the Revolution too, when General John Stark assembled an expedition of 1,500 men here in 1777. They proceeded west to meet the British at the Battle of Bennington, where their victory proved a major turning point in the war.
The fort, of course, is long gone, although some of the early houses have become ells on grander homes that were built in front of them. To see what the original stockade and settlement looked like, and to get a sense of what life was like in those early days, we visited The Fort at No. 4, a reconstruction of the stockade and buildings inside it.
As we walked through the furnished houses and workshops in this living history museum, we talked to costumed interpreters who were going about everyday chores — tending gardens, preparing meals, baking in a beehive oven, making and repairing tools — all using authentic utensils and methods. Although New England has a number of living history museums, this one is unique in the period it spotlights.
It also reflects the spirit of Charlestown and its neighboring towns. It’s been a community effort to keep this resource alive as tightening school budgets have limited the number of school group visits. Volunteers form the staff of interpreters, and community groups participate in various ways. The Anglican Church of the Good Shepherd, for example, holds Morning Prayer in the Hastings House at 11:30 a.m. on Sundays from May until October, using the 1662 “Book of Common Prayer,” the order of worship used during the 17th and 18th centuries.
Back in the historic district, we find the Church of the Good Shepherd on Summer Street, opposite the impressive Town Hall, with its brick-arched doors and windows. The church used to be the Connecticut River Bank, and you can still see the alarm box on the front. The 1824 building (another work of Stephen Hassam) was the scene of a badly botched bank robbery in 1850, when two men managed to breach the safe and make off into the night with $12,000 in cash and the contents of safety deposit boxes.
They might have gotten away with it, except for a steep hill where they had to get out and walk to lessen the weight of their loaded wagon. Walking at different paces, the two robbers were separated, one striding ahead of the wagon and the other falling behind. The horse, meanwhile, left the road in favor of an easier route, unnoticed by the robbers. A local farmer discovered the horse and loaded wagon in his yard the next morning and brought both to the bank to claim his reward.
Right next to Summer Street, we found a good spot at The Ice Cream Machine from which to contemplate Charlestown’s architecture over giant waffle cones. You can’t miss its picnic tables and bright striped awning, and you shouldn’t miss the molasses gingersnap ice cream. A large cone is a full meal.